How to Become a Christian: Chapter 14 - Step one - repent
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Step one in detail - repent

"...God...commands all people everywhere to repent.               Acts 17:30 (NIV)

30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn, and live.” Ezekiel 18:30-32 (RSV)

20Then he began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chora′zin! woe to you, Beth-sa′ida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Caper′na-um, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”Matthew 11:20-24 (RSV)

12"Even now," declares the LORD,
"return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning."
13Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
                                       Joel 2:12-13 (NIV)

Then I said,
"Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts."      Isaiah 6:5 (NASB)

There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? 3I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. 4Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo′am fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? 5I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Luke 13:1-5 (RSV)

46He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.                                 Luke 24:46-47 (NIV)

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.                                                    2 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV)

When a person makes a bad start in the Christian life, or if they fail to become a Christian at all, the most common reason, amongst those I have dealt with, is lack of genuine repentance.  Repentance about your sin is the foundation upon which the whole of your Christian life has to be built.  It must come first and it must be solid, or else a person may fail to be genuinely born again.

Alternatively, even if they are somehow saved and they do become a Christian, inadequate repentance will mean that they will experience ongoing weakness and problems.  They will fail to grow properly as a Christian because their foundation is inadequate.  It would be like trying to build a three storey building on top soil without a foundation.  Even if it could be built, it would not last.

The word ‘repent’ literally means to change your mind.  But, it must always involve a change in your actions as well.  So, if a car is travelling along the A1 trunk road in a northbound direction then the driver can “repent of driving north” by coming off the road, turning round and driving back along the A1 southbound. 

You can not repent simply in your mind.  That would be like deciding to go south, but instead carrying on driving north.  That would be meaningless.  Repentance must involve changed conduct, otherwise whatever you were thinking in your mind can’t have been sincere. You must turn away from any idols that you may have set up, whatever they may be. You must also give up any behaviour which is an abomination to God, or indeed anything which grieves Him or is contrary to His commands: 

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. Ezekiel 14:6 (RSV)

Repentance has a number of ingredients and all need to be present for repentance to be genuine.  It must involve recognising that you truly are a sinner, and that you are wrong.  You must see yourself as being at fault.  For many people, this is a real stumbling block.  They simply do not see themselves as blameworthy or sinful.  They don’t want to see it and won’t admit it, even to themselves.  

There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes,
Yet is not washed from his filthiness.      Proverbs 30:12 (NASB)

Some of us even take the view that it is God who is wrong and that our own conduct, views and attitudes are correct.  If we think that way we are profoundly mistaken and need to change:

29"But the house of Israel says, 'The way of the Lord is not right.' Are My ways not right, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are not right? 30"Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct," declares the Lord GOD. "Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.                                     Ezekiel 18:29-30 (NASB)

Some other people can just about manage to see themselves as sinful, but only to a slight degree.  They will make all sorts of excuses to justify themselves and minimise their own guilt. They may even reluctantly acknowledge that they are a sinner.  However, in their own private thoughts, they see themselves as not very sinful compared to other people.  If so, that person will struggle to become a Christian.  It reveals that they have no true understanding of what their own sin is or how appalling it is in God’s eyes.  

It isn't how we compare to other people that matters, but how we compare to Jesus.  If we measure ourselves alongside Him, we will get the point and realise why God says we are sinful.  But if we only compare ourselves to other people we can miss the point completely and imagine ourselves to be doing very well.

There are no such things as “small sins” or “unimportant sins”.  All sin is terrible and is seen by God as a deadly poison which He cannot tolerate.  For example, look at God’s view of sin in the book of Proverbs.  Note the strength of God’s feelings on the subject:

16There are six things the LORD hates,                                    
seven that are detestable to him:
17haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
18a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19a false witness who pours out lies
and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
                                                  Proverbs 6:16-19 (NIV)

The LORD detests all the proud of heart.
Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.
Proverbs 16:5(NIV)

We need to face this issue and work out whether we are really sinners or not.  If you cannot grasp this you will not be able to get started in the Christian life.  Or, if you do start then you will go forward in a crippled condition, unable to develop properly.  You have got to abandon all ideas of self-righteousness. You are not righteous. Neither is anybody else.

You, like everybody else, are a deeply sinful person.  We all have a heart that is rotten and corrupt.  You and I are completely unworthy to be in God’s presence. Look how the Bible describes us:

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it? 
Jeremiah 17:9 (NIV) 

But your iniquities have
separated you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.
Isaiah 59:2 (NIV)

It is therefore futile for you to compare yourself favourably with others and to feel reassured by that.  Being better than others is not enough, even if you are ten times better than them.  We are all like passengers on the Titanic without a place in the life boats.  We are all going down, even if you are better than the rest of us.  In that context it is irrelevant for any of us to argue that we are better than other people.  Maybe you are better. Who knows? However, the chances are that you are not. 

But if we are all on the Titanic as it is sinking, it would not matter anyway.  Our situations are all identical.  We all face God’s judgment and are all unacceptable to Him, whatever levels of merit or virtue we each have in ourselves.  Perhaps it would help to convince you if you look at what the prophet Isaiah says about his own righteousness:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.      Isaiah 64:6 (NIV)

Then remember what apostle Paul says about himself:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.                      1 Timothy 1:15 (NIV)

However, Paul's statement that he was such a bad sinner was not because he never did anything good.  It was because he realised that no matter how many good things he did, it could never make him righteous in God’s eyes.  Look what he said about his own good deeds, not his bad deeds:

4though I myself have reasons for such confidence.  If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.  7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.   Philippians 3:4-8 (NIV)

Apostle Paul is describing what his own righteousness (not his bad behaviour) looks like in God’s eyes.  Even his best qualities and behaviour are described as being “loss”, meaning of no value. In the King James translation Paul’s meaning is expressed more clearly. It translates it as Paul saying that his own good works are 'dung'.  The Greek word he uses actually means human excrement.  Paul used very strong language to get the message across.  The NIV tones it down, presumably to avoid giving offence.

This is apostle Paul talking about our best works, i.e. our best deeds, best behaviour and best thoughts.  Even they, let alone our usual or worst standards, are insufficient.  They are just excrement in comparison to God’s holiness.   That means that even at our best, on one of our best days, when we think we are acting at our best standard, we are still inadequate and unimpressive.  In short, we have no righteousness at all in ourselves. 

Think further about how God considers your sin.  If it was true that God looks upon your sin or mine as being trivial, then why was Jesus Christ prepared to go to the cross and die to be punished for it?  Your sin was sufficiently serious in the eyes of God the Father, the Son of God and the Holy Spirit, for them all to consider it necessary for Jesus, to go to the cross and die because of it. Therefore, how can it possibly be insignificant? 

Jesus did not only die for people who do extraordinary sins on a large scale, like Adolf Hitler.  He also died for the likes of you and me.  We may not be famous or spectacular in our sinfulness. But we are equally unacceptable and lost from God’s perspective.   You, and I and Adolf Hitler are all going down together on the same Titanic, unless and until we repent.

Therefore, we must begin by taking a frank and realistic look at ourselves as we truly are.  Decide now to abandon all delusions about yourself being righteous or being better than some other people. Consider the blunt way that Jesus spoke to people who were self-righteous.  He had no time at all for self-righteousness.  

Note also which group of people is most prone to self-righteousness, i.e. thinking more highly of themselves than they should.  It is mainly those who are actively involved in organised religion. Thus it was the Scribes, Sadducees, Pharisees and Rabbis that Jesus usually criticised most sharply, not the ordinary people.  Consider this story that Jesus told:

9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:10"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' 

13"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' 14"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."                                             Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)

The Pharisees belonged to the more conservative wing of Judaism, which believed most fully in the Old Testament.  Their views were the closest to the truth.  This man therefore had a good knowledge of the Bible.  His beliefs and doctrines were more accurate than most people’s. However, he also had an inflated view of his own righteousness. 

So, when he went into the temple to pray he demonstrated that he had no idea how sinful he was.  He mistakenly imagined himself to be better than the other man, merely because of what he knew and because of the prestige of the group he belonged to.

The tax collector’s job involved dishonesty, corruption and collaboration with the Roman occupying forces.  All of that made him despicable in the eyes of people around him.  He therefore had no illusions about himself being good or superior.  He clearly saw himself as a sinner.  He knew that he had no righteousness to offer and could only rely on God’s mercy.  Jesus therefore said of him that he went home “justified" and forgiven, whereas the Pharisee did not. 

Therefore, take on board the point of the story.  Jesus told it so that you and I should copy the tax collector’s attitude, not the Pharisee’s.  We are to regard this tax collector as our model when it comes to repentance (though not when it comes to his previous life, prior to his repentance).

Even today, it is still true that it is ‘religious’ people who find it hardest to repent and be saved.  I find it hard to talk about sin to people in churches.  They tend to resent it and feel that it is not relevant to them because they go to church.  But they are very mistaken.  There is great sinfulness in all our hearts, even if we have been going to church all our lives, and even if we are church leaders:

"Both prophet and priest are godless;-
even in my temple I find their wickedness,"-
declares the LORD.
                                                       Jeremiah 23:11 (NIV)

 The Lord says:
"These people come near to me with their mouth
and honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is made up only of rules taught by men.
                                                            Isaiah 29:13 (NIV)

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